As a therapeutic riding instructor, I have worked with a fair number of donated or nearly donated (reduced-price) horses. I have also test ridden and handled potential therapeutic mounts. All of these horses had something in common: an owner or seller who described the horse as quiet and easy to handle. I learned with time to take the opinion of owners and sellers of potential therapeutic horses or any sale horse with a grain of salt. I do not mind if the horse has a quirk, one thing that really bothers him, or needs some remedial training. What I do mind is the horse of an owner/seller who misrepresents their animal to the potential harm of others. Such misrepresentation may not be intentional, but ignorance can cause just as many problems as outright deception.
For example, many years ago I test rode a horse who was outwardly quiet. He stood quietly for grooming and tacking up. The apparent trainer of the horse confessed that he liked the horse and found him easy to handle, but that his girlfriend let the horse get too nosy. I made a note of this comment and said nothing. The horse was taken out to a large round pen with high solid walls, the kind that you cannot see over. The trainer worked the horse in the round pen, demonstrating the horse's obedience in all three gaits and both directions. Then the trainer got on the horse and rode him around the round pen. The horse never missed a step and moved on a loose rein like a good, Western mount. The guy also stood upright on the horse's back demonstrating that the horse would stand reliably. This was very impressive.
After observing the horse safely handled and ridden, it was my turn to handle him and to get on. After some basic leading, I mounted the horse and he stood quietly. I tested his "whoa" after taking a few steps forward and repeated the test several times using different degrees of rein pressure, seat, and my voice to see how sensitive the horse's brakes were. Then we moved up a gear and I rode the horse in all three gaits in both directions. The horse went just as easily for me as it had for the trainer and I rode him entirely on a loose rein, as I had seen the trainer ride him. My employer and I were wise to the fact that horses may behave differently in different settings, so we asked to ride the horse in a fenced-in arena instead of the round pen. The trainer obliged and we walked the horse to an outdoor riding ring.
The horse was mostly the same fellow in the new ring, except for a new discovery: he had no interest in rein contact. Now, I do not expect a future therapeutic horse to be a dressage horse, but acceptance of the bit and contact with the bit is basic training for the ridden horse. This horse was mildly rude about the contact if I shortened the reins. This told me that the horse had some holes in his training and possibly some leadership issues. Since his reaction to rein pressure was not huge, we considered that he was just not used to any sort of riding except that on a long, loose rein. A horse that goes on a loose rein is desirable for therapeutic riding and considering his apparent good manners, we decided to take the horse on trial. Our usual trial period was thirty days.
After getting the horse back to the farm, I made plans to work with him right away. This was our typical procedure, as we wanted to see what the horse was like in an unfamiliar setting. Once again, the horse stood nicely for grooming and demonstrated basically good manners. We usually have to train more stringent rules about personal space and leading into therapeutic horses, but this horse seemed to be equipped with a reasonable foundation. I took the horse into the indoor arena, with plans to work him at liberty, before tacking him up and riding. I had watched the trainer work the horse at liberty and had a reasonable idea of what to expect from the new horse. Or at least I thought that I had a reasonable idea...
Once in the indoor, I made my first mistake and this was most definitely my mistake. I took the horse's halter off and turned my back on him to shut the gate. The horse immediately followed me to the gate, intruding on my space and possibly thinking about walking out of the open door. I suppose working with so many compliant horses that had been trained to stand and wait had made me complacent. I forgot that I was dealing with a horse that may not have any of the understanding that I expected him to have, despite the obedience that I had observed the day before at the horse's home.
I noticed very quickly that the horse was following me, so I turned around and "got big". This means that I made myself look physically taller by throwing up my arms. I was telling the horse to back off. This is a technique that I had employed many, many times to stop a horse in its tracks or deter a horse from entering my space. Before I could move or react, the horse spun around and kicked into the air with both hind legs.
It is difficult to appreciate how fast horses can move, until you see them in real space and time. The kick was aimed at my head and, no doubt, would have made contact if the horse had really wanted to hit me. The horse trotted off a few feet and stopped. I stood in front of the open gate, shocked by what had almost happened, but physically unharmed. I never in a million years expected that horse to react so violently.
Now the gig was up. I knew there was more to this horse then we had originally been led to believe. If this situation were to repeat itself in the same manner today, I would walk away right then and call the owner to come pick up the horse.
Of course, I demonstrated less than swift learning skills in this story as the horse had clearly warned me with the resistance to contact and the double-barreled threat to my face, but I eventually did learn my lesson and will never make the mistake to "get big" to a foreign horse or work a horse initially at liberty again. That was a lesson learned by the skin of my teeth.
At the time, I was not sure if the behavior was a true indicator of the horse's nature or a fluke that I caused by surprising the horse. He had ridden and handled so easily the day before that I decided to continue my plan to work him at liberty in the indoor. Truthfully, the horse had been so much fun to ride that I was really looking forward to riding him again and this pushed me to overlook the undeniable act of defiance.
Sometimes humans have thick skulls. I am no exception.
I walked out into the arena with a lunge whip (at least I was not so stupid as to forget that) and asked the horse to start moving. The horse reluctantly walked forward and stopped. I swished the whip again, assertively, but careful not to surprise him this time. The horse stared at me. I asked him to move again, but he just stared and did not budge. I increased my demands, swishing the whip with more energy and strength, clucking, and telling the horse to "walk" while walking closer to this very strange animal that was behaving less and less like the horse I had met the day before. Finally, I was so close to the horse that I had no choice, but to give up or press the issue. I was a fool for doing so, but the trainer in me was roaring. I decided to press. I whacked the horse smartly on the butt with the whip.
You would think the horse would have reacted more aggressively, but he only tossed his head and started trotting. Feeling that I had called his bluff and asserted that my will was just as strong as his, I gained confidence. I kept the horse trotting all around the indoor ring, swishing my whip and clucking if he showed signs of slowing down. I value fairness, so I tried to forget any ill feelings that I had toward the horse for his previous behavior and praised him for moving out at my request. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that I had the situation under control.
And then the horse threw me for another loop. This horse picked up the canter and dropped his head and neck all the way to the ground. At first I thought that he was showing signs of submission and stretching, but once he reached the next corner of the ring, he turned and headed straight for me at the ring's center. His teeth were bared, his ears were flat against his head, and his eyes were looking directly into mine. His expression said one thing and he said it clearly:
"I want to kill you."
The gelding ran at me with his snake mouth open and his eyes as red as the sun. All assertiveness left me. I had the whip in my hand, but I forgot it was there. Every cell in my body screamed,
I dodged around a barrel, trying to create a barrier between my person and the wild animal in pursuit of my flesh. The horse skidded to a halt, spun around, and came after me again. This time I ran for the open fence at the front of the arena. I could hear the horse behind me, but I didn't dare turn around. I dove between the rails of the fence like a swimmer entering the water. Dust and arena footing flew against the fencing as the horse stopped and spun again taking off, but this time away from me. My friend and fellow instructor had walked in to see the monster's final attempt to savage me. We stared at each other in utter disbelief. My heart pounded in my ears and I felt light-headed knowing what had almost happened. That horse had the shortest trial period in the history of trial horses.
For some reason, I had to convince my boss that the horse was truly dangerous. My friend and I relayed the story, but it just sounded too crazy and she had seen the horse go so obediently the day before. My employer had never seen a horse behave as I had described and frankly, before that day, neither had I. I was worried that another staff member at the farm might attempt to work with the trial horse, which was common practice. I was even more worried that another person might jump at the challenge to try and "tame" the animal that chased me. I knew that type of person well and that no story would suffice in discouraging a determined personality. My own mistake at ignoring the horse's dangerous initial behavior was proof of that. I offered to show my boss exactly what the horse was capable of. Let's just say that I am a fast runner and I feared for another person's safety enough to risk going head to head with that horse one more time.
True to the story, the horse came after me again with very little provoking while my boss was standing at the fence. I had planned a path of escape this time and weaved a line around barrels before exiting swiftly between the rails. My employer's face was priceless. I do not think that she believed her own eyes at first. This was a horse recommended by its owner/seller to be used for compromised riders and handled by volunteers. We will never know for sure why the horse behaved so much differently at its home base or if the seller and trainer were aware of the horse's extremely aggressive tendencies. That was one quiet horse that I was happy to never see again.